Hannah Schrag: Senior on a Mission to promote FRESH

A small but growing group of students at Liberty High School are determined to set positive examples for their peers and younger students. It may seem to be a daunting goal at first glance, but with all the various pressures facing adolescents these days, it’s important that kids have a place of stability, which can be a group of high-schoolers who are always evaluating their choices and striving to make the smart ones.

That’s the vision held by Hannah Schrag, an 18-year-old senior at Liberty High School and current president of FRESH (Finding Reasons to Exercise Safe Habits), a group whose members are determined to set positive examples for their peers and to mentor younger students as well.

“I had already noticed that there were drug and alcohol problems among members of my class that mirrored those across the board in our society,” Hannah said. “At the beginning of the school year some of my friends got involved with FRESH and encouraged me to join.” She was also influenced by Liberty High School’s FRESH faculty sponsor, Nikki Junco, a counselor at the school.

“The problems that I see are really more of a peer pressure kind of thing,” Hannah observed. “One kid will do something and entice others into questionable behavior. ‘Nothing serious may have happened to so-and-so,’ they might say. So they’ll do it again. And then again. They keep on following the leader and eventually it can become an issue.”

Hannah is looking forward to an assembly this spring that she believes will be organized by FRESH members. “The overall subject will be on mental health and deal with anxiety and depression,” a growing problem for many youths. “I think it will give FRESH greater visibility.”

Recently, FRESH members distributed flyers in racks positioned in lavatory stalls. “We’ll have a monthly series,” she explained, “first dealing with caffeine addiction. Then we’ll take on the subjects of anxiety and stress we feel leading up to college entrance tests. Finally, we will take on alcohol and drug issues.”

In early April, Liberty High School FRESH members went to Lillian Schumacher Elementary School to talk with the kids and present themselves as role models, Hannah said. “We are typical kids and we want to show younger students that you can still be accepted by your peers without having to do drugs and alcohol. We want to show them that it’s cool to make safe choices.”

Ms. Junco said that the FRESH students presented lessons on how to combat bullying to four 4th grade classes at Schumacher Elementary. “This is the first year that I’ve taken on the FRESH program, so it’s sort of a process year of getting re-started,” she said. “It should really grow in the next few school years as we add programs and bring in more guest speakers.”

One way that FRESH members illustrate that “it’s cool to make safe choices” is by distributing FRESH trading cards, which are similar to baseball cards with a picture of the student on one side and a description of his or her activities on the back.

“Not everyone gets a card right off the bat,” Ms. Junco remarked. “A student needs to be active in FRESH for one full semester before qualifying to have a card. We created a really cool poster featuring all of our FRESH members as an incentive for others to get involved.”

“All of us in the FRESH Club are involved in other activities,” Hannah said. “For example, I’m in the Key Club, the National Honor Society and I am a swimmer. Our pictures are of us doing the things we like to do. So we’ll have a supply of cards that we will then pass out to the elementary kids while we are doing activities with them.”

Collect ‘em all!

Teens and Weed: Confronting the Paradoxical Messages

American adolescents today face amazingly confusing messages regarding the use of marijuana. On one hand, the federal government still considers marijuana use illegal in all states and classifies it in a category that also contains the hard narcotics heroin and cocaine. While on the other hand, nine states have legalized marijuana for adult recreational use and 29 states have approved its use for medicinal purposes.

What is a teenager supposed to believe?

First and foremost, remember that teenagers are still developing, physically and mentally. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that un-prescribed medications and/or alcohol can severely affect a young person’s ability to develop to their full potential.

That being said, parents need to be honest with their teens when discussing and laying out parameters for their social behaviors. Today’s teen has come of age during the push for marijuana legalization. They have seen reports on the news and articles in the paper discussing the issue. They have been hearing and seeing messages and pro-legalization ads that were intended to influence adult votes, not adolescents’ beliefs. Many parents have used marijuana in the past and some still do.

“The kids I’m seeing are coming in and saying, ‘It’s really no big deal to do weed, Doctor,'” said Dr. Rosemary Stein, a pediatrician from North Carolina. “And the parents I’m seeing are thinking, ‘It is a big deal,’ and they don’t want their kids doing it. They want me to get through to them that ‘it’s not good for you,’ and to ask where they’re hearing that ‘it’s OK.'”

There are three basic facts regarding teen use of marijuana:

  • Marijuana use can become addictive.
  • It can negatively affect performance in academics and sports.
  • Driving under its influence is dangerous.

Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report, “Counseling Parents and Teens about Marijuana Use in the Era of Legalization of Marijuana.” The AAP is urging physicians to screen adolescents for marijuana use. Doctors are also encouraged to tell parents that they should be watching for signs of use.

The Marijuana Education Initiative has issued some guidelines for parents in talking to their teens about marijuana:

  • Be empathetic. The struggle is real for teens. Today’s adolescent faces far more stresses than previous generations, and they don’t always have the maturity and life experience to understand the long-term impacts of their decisions. It takes a lot of courage to not just follow the crowd.
  • Teach the facts. Empower teens with information. When adolescents know the facts about their own brain development and how recreational marijuana use can affect their brains, they can make informed decisions.
  • Keep the conversation going. Adolescence is a time of testing limits, pushing boundaries, and seeking independence. Just because a teen might have made a decision that you don’t support does not mean that the conversation is over. Continuous and open conversations ensure that adolescents have a clear understanding of expectations and boundaries.

The discussion in the current environment parallels what has been argued regarding alcohol for decades: It is an adult activity that should be practiced in moderation. Plus, in the states of Missouri and Kansas, marijuana use is still illegal for everyone!

Be Aware. Don’t Share. Sharing medications is never a good idea

Easy access to prescription drugs by teens – often from their parents’ medicine cabinet or those of their friends’ parents – makes them a prime target of curious young people who are experimenting with drugs. A growing number of youths have been seen in emergency rooms for accidental overdoses of prescription drugs. Lock the Cabinet is a campaign to encourage adults to take all necessary precautions to ensure children and teens are not taking drugs that can damage their developing brains and bodies.

There’s one overriding reason why you should never share medications that are prescribed only for you: it can result in serious, even fatal consequences to others that take them.

According to Lock the Cabinet, it’s hard to find a group of junior or senior-high school students that don’t have some of their parents’ medication in their bags or backpacks. Some teens sell painkiller or opioid medications, along with stimulants and tranquilizers.

Guess what happens when your teenage daughter or son decides to buy or is given one of these hardcore opiates such as OxyContin or Vicodin, stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall, and sedatives or tranquilizers like Valium and Xanax – and takes it in combination with alcohol or other drugs? The threat of serious complications is always present, especially overdose, which can prove fatal.

It’s a tough subject, especially if you have teens that are already beginning to experiment with drug use. You may think that it’s too late to begin a discussion about the dangers of sharing prescription drugs as well as abuse of illegal drugs, but it isn’t.

In the end, there’s never a good reason to share prescription medications with anyone else. You don’t want to be responsible for the consequences and you’d never be able to forgive yourself if that person suffered serious impairment or died as a result of taking medication prescribed for you.

Bottom line: Never share prescription medications with anyone. It’s a bad idea and the results could be tragic.

Balancing Real Life and the Online Experience

Kids today are often are more computer savvy than their parents. One of the biggest parenting challenges is keeping track what our kids are viewing online and how much time they are spending in the virtual world. There’s no keeping youth off the Internet, so much of their social world is online; but parents do need to regulate their children’s exposure if only to keep them away from adult sites and potential predators.

Here are a few things to remember when managing your children’s Internet exposure:

  • Parenting remains the same as always in the real and virtual environments. Set limits; kids need and expect them. Teach kindness. Be involved. Know who their friends are.
  • Role models are critical. Limit your own online time. Attentive parenting requires time away from screens.
  • Content matters even more than time spent online. Prioritize how your child spends their time rather than just setting a timer.
  • Co-engagement helps. Play a video game with your child. Your perspective influences how kids will understand their time on-line.
  • Require time every day for traditional play with the computer off.
  • It’s OK for your teen to be online. Online relationships are critical for adolescent development. Teach your teen behaviors that are appropriate for the online and everyday world.
  • Kids will be kids. When they make a mistake, make it a teachable moment.

Students will be of legal age by the time they are seniors. So a teenager should understand your family’s values, rules and expectations around technology/social media long before they reach high school.

Always stress the difference between life online and real life. We need more hugs than “likes.” We need conversations, not status updates. We need to grow up, not a software update. It’s all in striking a balance. Computers are wonderful tools, but that is all they are. We live our lives ourselves.


Learn More: Raising Resilient Kids: Parenting in the Digital Age  Watch as Pediatrician Dr. Natasha Burgert describes how children’s brains develop and the impact technology has on them. 

Teens and Prescription Drugs – A Silent Epidemic

Adolescent and teen prescription drug abuse is a silent epidemic mirroring the crisis in the general population. The lack of information targeted to younger age groups coupled with how easy it is to obtain prescription drugs from family and friends sends the message that there is no real danger.

Doctors dispense prescription drugs, so they must be safer to take than street drugs such as cocaine and marijuana, right? Unfortunately, many young people operate under this common misconception. In fact, abusing prescription drugs can be as dangerous and addictive as abusing illegal street drugs.

Young people are experiencing life-threatening side effects from using prescription drugs in the wrong way and exposing themselves to potential addictive substances. According to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, young people who start off abusing prescription medication are more likely to report subsequent abuse of illegal street drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.

More than two million kids report abusing prescription drugs in a given year, and these drugs are abused by kids at a higher rate than any illicit drug other than marijuana.  A recent study of 12-year-old adolescents found that prescription drugs were their drugs of choice.

Young people are still growing. Their bodies are constantly changing to eventually become healthy adults. Abuse of certain types of prescription drugs can have a significant effect on adolescent and teen brain development, while other drugs can damage organs, such as kidneys.

Additionally, young people with a family history of alcohol or drug abuse are particularly susceptible to developing addictions from prescription drug abuse.

Many teens that abuse prescription drugs are not trying to get high, but are using them to help them deal with an underlying problem such as anxiety. So parents need to understand physical or emotional problems their teen may be facing, which need to be addressed. It’s not enough to simply tell them not to use drugs. Parents need to understand what’s going on in their teens’ minds – what kind of stresses they feel.

FRESH Students Reach Out to Younger Ones

Morgan Neal, a junior at Liberty North High School, has been instrumental in creating the FRESH program (Finding Reasons to Exercise Safe Habits) in Liberty. Morgan has been involved a variety of activities through her prevention work. She has traveled to Jefferson City to visit with her state legislators, as well as attend the statewide Speak Hard Youth Conference.

Students participating in FRESH have made written pledges not to use alcohol or drugs, and they are focusing positive peer pressure among local youth to do the same. In addition, the older students in FRESH have begun to mentor younger pupils to demonstrate that they can “fit in” with their peers by making healthy choices.

Prevention is important to Morgan because she recognizes that it is not always a topic people want to talk about. “Parents do not always know how to talk to their teens, or the importance of doing so,” she said.

FRESH students are identified on trading cards similar to baseball cards that show their pictures and list their activities on the back.

“We’re hoping that they view the people on the cards as role models,” Morgan said. “We want to show that they can still have fun without making self-destructive decisions.”

Morgan had heard about similar trading card programs elsewhere. “I thought it might be something we could do in Liberty.” She and 10 of her fellow FRESH participants recently took the idea to kids at Warren Hills Elementary School in a pilot project.

Members of the FRESH group individually targeted the classrooms of third, fourth and fifth graders. The message to the younger pupils is not overtly related to alcohol and drug abuse. “We are trying to focus on identifying right and wrong situations,” she said, and the proper way to react. “Because once you get to high school the consequences of your actions can have a much greater effect on your life.

“We hope that they will want to have their own picture on a trading card,” Morgan said, “and know that the people already on these cards have made good decisions to get them to this point.”

Currently, about 30 students in both of Liberty’s high schools are “card carrying” FRESH peers. “As we grow, we hope to have students in every school involved with FRESH,” Morgan said.

BAD TO THE BRAIN: The Long-Lasting Impact of Teen Drug Use

In many communities across the country, it’s no secret drug problems can be prevalent among our youth. National surveys show, as young as 12 or 13, some children are already abusing drugs. Nearly half of high school seniors say they’ve smoked marijuana, while over 6 percent use it every day.

Especially at that young age, that’s a risk we simply can’t afford. More than many people realize, drug use has a profound impact on the adolescent brain, and can lead to consequences that affect teens for the rest of their lives.

The reason why? During adolescence, research indicates the brain is still going through significant changes—and that development continues all the way into a person’s 20s. One critical area is the prefrontal cortex, which shapes high-level cognitive functions like planning, decision-making, social interactions, and even self-control.

At this young age, drug use can cause noticeable changes not only in the teen brain’s structure, but in how it works. It actually disrupts the brain’s function, and can hamper key traits such as behavior control, learning, motivation, as well as memory. Worst of all, these changes can endure long-term, and result in bad behaviors typically seen in many drug users. In fact, the National Institutes of Health report, “Adolescents who abuse drugs often act out, do poorly academically, and drop out of school. They are at risk for unplanned pregnancies, violence, and infectious diseases.”

During early and later teen years, kids are especially susceptible to experimenting with or using drugs. At school, they usually have to deal with new challenges, both socially and academically. For the first time in their young lives, they may be exposed to drug availability, or witness substance use by older teens. Thanks to their still-developing brains, teenagers are also more prone to risk-taking or poor choices.

The bottom line? Particularly during the adolescent’s formative brain-development years, it’s more critical than ever to prevent drug use before it starts. It’s also essential for everyone to know the real risks behind teen drug use, and how it holds harmful consequences that could last a lifetime.

Teen Stress: Healthy Habits Vs. Harmful Behavior

Few periods in a person’s life are more stressful than the teenage years. Bodies are changing; emotions and hormones are running strong. Kids face challenges and stress factors on a daily basis from family, friends, school, and especially from social media. Today more than ever, it’s a challenging time to be a teen.

Unfortunately, during those stressful years, many adolescents turn to drugs to cope with feelings of distress. They mistakenly believe that while using drugs may be harmful, it provides an easy and available solution for relieving stress. And while most tell us marijuana is their preferred drug when feeling stressed, alcohol and tobacco are also commonly used.

Public health experts, however, warn that marijuana use can do real harm to the teen’s developing brain as well as lead to lower IQs. In addition, it can significantly hamper their capacity to drive safely. Certain drugs, for example, actually affect the brain in much the same way as stress, causing the body to release powerful neuro-chemicals. Compared to non-users, long-term drug use can even make teens more sensitive to normal stress they may experience every day.

The tangible connection between stress and drug use is also confirmed by the latest brain research conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The organization reports people undergoing stress are more likely to use drugs or alcohol for relief, or could more easily fall into addiction. That is why, during those stress-inducing teenage years, adolescents are particularly vulnerable to substance use.

The good news is, rather than turning to drugs, teenagers have a number of healthier and less harmful options for reducing stress. Here are some practical tips and techniques for stress management, direct from NIDA:

1) Take care of yourself. Healthy foods, exercise, and enough sleep really do make you feel better and better able to cope!

2) Focus. To keep from feeling overwhelmed, concentrate on challenges one at a time.

3) Keep calm. Step away from an argument or confrontation by taking a deep breath. Go for a walk or do some other physical activity.

4) Move on. If you don’t achieve something you were trying for, practice and prepare for the next time, or check out some other activity.

5) Talk about it. Talking to an understanding listener who remains calm can be very helpful.

“FRESH”: Encouraging Positive Choices and Helping Students Stay Drug-Free

As we usher in the new school year, it’s an opportune time to learn more about a commendable drug prevention program now in place at both Liberty high schools. It’s called “Finding Reasons To Exercise Safe Habits” or FRESH. From the start, FRESH was implemented with a twofold purpose:

1) to create positive peer pressure among high school youth to avoid using alcohol or other drugs, and

2) to mentor younger students and urge them to realize they can successfully “fit in” by making healthy choices and being drug-free.

Through their middle and high school years, students are encouraged to apply to the FRESH program, wherein they must sign a pledge to themselves, each other, coaches, school, and the community to remain alcohol and drug-free. Within this pledge, clear expectations and consequences are outlined that students must adhere to for the remainder of the school year. While wearing their activity uniform, all pledging students have individual photos taken, which are then printed on trading cards. To help students feel further invested in their FRESH pledge, the cards also include their personal statement explaining why they are drug-free.

Throughout the year, high school students meet with students at the elementary and middle schools to personally distribute these trading cards. In this way, the program serves to mentor younger students and share a positive message about FRESH students’ commitment to be drug and alcohol-free.

It’s important to note that accountability remains the critical component of this much-needed program. First and foremost, the FRESH pledge serves as an effective deterrent against drug use, committing youths to remain drug and alcohol- free. In addition, this pledge holds students responsible for their behavior as mentors, encouraging them to continue serving as positive role models and staying drug-free.

Now more than ever, especially given growing drug and alcohol problems among youth, LAFY applauds and supports the efforts of this vital program in the Liberty schools.